US (1963) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Wealthy socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird shop in San Francisco, the latter wanting to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister Cathy’s (Veronica Cartwright) eleventh birthday. Smitten, Melanie buys the birds and plans to surprise Mitch by delivering them to him making the long drive down to the Californian locale of Bodega Bay, where Mitch lives with Cathy and their possessive mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), receiving an invite to stay for her troubles. Coincidentally the birds of the bay start to grow in vast numbers and begin vicious attacks on the people.
One of Hitchcock’s most famous films, it is third to be adapted from the works of novelist Daphne Du Maurier (following Jamaica Inn and the Oscar winning Rebecca). Recently however it is comes under scrutiny as part of the recent bio-drama The Girl which aired on UK TV over the Christmas holiday, focusing on an alleged infatuation between the mighty director and his leading lady Tippi Hedren during its filming. Hopefully this slice of tabloid sensationalism would have too much of a damning effect on this film, allowing people to watch and rewatch it without prejudice.
The first half and hour or so is a wry comedy of manners as Melanie and Mitch’s first meeting at the bird shop is built around a practical joke played by Mitch. In the first of many unanswered questions in this film, this was done in response to an incident in court several months early. Why they were both in court is never revealed. The action many follows Melanie as she makes her way to Bodega Bay and her subsequent trip round the island to the Brenner house, via the home of school mistress Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), a former flame of Mitch’s. The first bird attack doesn’t occur until Melanie is forced to make her way across the water to reach the house, a seagull swooping down from seemingly out of nowhere to nip her in the side of the head.
In between the quick frenzied avian attacks, we are treated to some solid old fashioned human drama as Melanie and Mitch become increasingly attracted to each other, helped by Cathy’s enthusiasm for the newcomer, while widow Lydia plays the frosty matriarch, afraid to lose her son. Thus for Melanie, she is fighting two battles – one against some nasty old crows, and one against a selfish old woman with crow’s feet! Actually, Lydia isn’t that bad a woman, she is merely a scared one who manipulates without actually seen to be manipulating, and future Oscar winner Jessica Tandy plays Lydia as a sympathetic woman rather than a scheming she-devil in a nuanced performance.
The next big attack scene occurs during the birthday party and while its energy and palpable terror is without question, the slightly dated special effects – using an alternative to the blue screen process called SVP (sodium vapour process) developed by legendary Disney animator Ub Iwerks – are exposed for the first time. While the model birds and the reactions of the actors make the scenes as convincing as possible, some of the overlay hasn’t held up to well in lieu of the smoothness of modern effect techniques. This isn’t a negative critique, but a warning to anyone used to the precision of today’s CGI cinema. As the numbers grow, the attacks get more violent and Melanie’s suspicion that they after the children is give credence when a huge flock of crows attack the school with great success. Ensuing man vs bird battles become more extravagant and the damage greater, not limited to inadvertently causing a huge street wide blaze.
For someone noted for his use of music, Hitchcock eschews any kind of soundtrack for this, supplanting it with bird noises to great effect. The cawing of the crows and the warble of the warblers provide equal atmospheric tension and dread as any symphonic piece may, but in this case, it is for more congruent to the tale. Even the silence during the lulls carries with it a weight of anxiety and apprehension not knowing when the feathered foes will strike again. For sheer, unadulterated suspenseful horror the final act is among the most tense and unnerving as any full blooded slasher movie you care to mention, underlining Hitchcock’s reputation as THE master of suspense.
Whether Hitchcock did lust after Tippi Hedren or not during filming (and who can blame him, she was a stunner) she was a good choice for the spoilt rich girl Melanie. Personally, I felt she was a little too calm once the attacks started. In one scene where she is relating the story to her father via telephone, Melanie assures him she is not hysterical yet she says all of this without a single trace of adrenaline fuelled excitement let alone hysteria! But when she had to get pecked half to death and stripped of her glamour, Hedren gave herself fully to the role, as did the rest of the cast, most of whom certainly earned their salaries.
The big cloud hanging over The Birds is the lack of resolution and answers, but this isn’t a tale that lends itself to such detail. This is about “what ifs?” rather than “What did” so al the information we get is sufficient enough to build the story around, since it is largely irrelevant anyway. On the technical front this may not grab the imagination of the modern cinema goer weaned on CGI and digital formats, but for simple storytelling and innate unsettling terror, this is a classic that needs no extra coat of gloss to dampen its effect or legacy.